Wild differences in the marking of student law papers have emerged in preliminary research by four universities, writes Claire Sanders.
Academics from the law schools of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, South Bank and Wolverhampton universities found that marking varied so widely that there could be a two classification difference in degree level for the same paper.
The academics all marked first-year student exam papers on a core element of the law degree. The results, presented at a conference on legal education at Warwick University this week, showed wide diversity.
Jim Hanlon, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam, said: "To give the most extreme example - one student's paper was given a mark of just 13 by one examiner and 56 by another. This student's work had originally been given a mark of 31 by the internal marker."
The work was marked blind, so examiners had no idea where the students were from. Mr Hanlon said: "There was no clear distinction between the marker from the old university and the markers from the new universities."
Mr Hanlon added: "Examiners often say 'I know a 2:1 when I see it', but I have never believed that. The preliminary results mean that may be far from the case."
The UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE) is funding the universities to take the research further. Students at the four participating law schools will take a common exam and be assessed internally. Their work will be further assessed by examiners from law schools other than the participating four.
The Quality Assurance Agency has produced a benchmark statement for law, setting out national minimum degree standards. The system of external examiners is also meant to ensure consistency.
"At degree level, there is a broad range of answers to any one question. If the next stage of our research shows significant variations, it is clear a debate on marking is needed," Mr Hanlon said.
The UKCLE conference at Warwick was held five days after the closing date for a Law Society consultation on a new training framework for solicitors, which will allow far more variation in how solicitors are taught.
More specifically, it encourages the setting-up of four-year exempting degrees in which the vocational and academic parts of legal education are taught together. A special session on exempting degrees was due to be held at Warwick after the main conference.
A number of universities are in the early stages of setting up consortia to run exempting degrees. Northumbria University is the only one to offer them currently.